1. Boyhood resists most attempts to analyze it outside the circumstances of its creation. Richard Linklater has filmed a group of actors every year or so for more than a decade, collecting episodes that tell the story of a young boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his family. The success (and the complications) of this approach and the events depicted on-screen compete for our attention, inasmuch as we can separate them. There’s no easy engaging with Boyhood purely on the level of plot and character.
2. Linklater’s experiment gives him creative latitude with the coming-of-age story that storytellers don’t always have (or don’t always grant themselves). Mason’s mom (Patricia Arquette) marries and divorces an alcoholic, then marries and divorces an alcoholic once again. In another film, this instance of repetition might play as laziness on the part of the filmmaker; in Boyhood, it plays as a function of the film’s verisimilitude. (‘That kind of thing happens in real life,’ etc.)
3. Boyhood also complicates the manner in which a viewer distinguishes a performer from his or her character, especially in the case of the film’s child actors. We are seeing these people grow up—quite literally, if only to a point. This is unsettling at times, seeing the continued physical development of a person without having any insight into his or her actual life. And Boyhood is much better at persuading us to invest in what’s on-screen than the latest item on your Facebook newsfeed about a distant cousin’s kids.
4. Between Boyhood’s documentation of the year-by-year aging of its young actors and the film’s general verisimilitude, Linklater’s decision to preserve—on film—Ellar Coltrane’s unfortunate late-teens facial hair is at once cruel and perfectly appropriate.
5. The choice also demonstrates the perils of verisimilitude. We don’t often see facial hair this ugly in cinema; underdeveloped in a manner that makes it also appear somehow unclean, a manner that communicates its own basic misguidedness. Although Coltrane’s wispy attempted goatee makes contextual sense, it also registers (perhaps too intensely) as an aberration.
6. Boyhood really only becomes a film about boyhood after an hour or so. Until that point, the film’s attention belongs to Mason’s family as a unit. Of course, many young children spend more time with their siblings and/or parents than older children do. But I missed the focus on Mason’s larger family once it was gone. A curious viewer might wonder when and how Linklater decided on the boy as his subject, when he decided on his film’s title, etc.—again, even matters of plot will likely lead the curious viewer back to thinking about the film’s production. The conceit is inescapable.
7. A curious viewer might also wonder if Linklater merely felt more comfortable telling the story of a young, male aspiring artist than he did telling a more holistic family story—or if he worried that audiences wouldn’t turn out in the same numbers for a similar movie about a young girl.
8. Patricia Arquette in particular has an arc that’s an arc as legible as Mason’s and arguably more compelling. Linklater never abandons Arquette’s character as she navigates higher education and single motherhood, but it’s a real sadness that the movie becomes more conventional in its focus as it goes on. We can see other films within this one, and that sense of possibility is bittersweet.
9. Though in fairness to Linklater, if one looks at the range of films he has made while not attending to Boyhood—the Bad News Bears remake, A Scanner Darkly, Bernie, Before Midnight—then the narrative coherence and tonal consistency of Boyhood is remarkable, whether or not the film becomes another story of a young white dude finding himself.
10. Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke), a wannabe musician, comes and goes during the first years of Mason’s life we see onscreen. He’s a consistently inconsistent presence, someone whose life as an artist has not gone as planned—which makes his scenes valuable counterweights to later scenes of Mason discovering his own artistic ambitions.
11. Linklater might be using the repellent aspects of Ethan Hawke to lend Masons’ dad definition; he might be using the goodwill an audience theoretically feels toward Ethan Hawke to suggest why a person might enjoy the company of this dubious character. Hawke the actor-celebrity has become less irritating over time, and so too does his character; I honestly couldn’t say where my opinion on one begins and the other ends. Anyway, he has a fairly satisfying arc of his own.
12. By the time Mason has fully become the protagonist of Boyhood, he has also inherited the protagonist’s curse of being one of the least interesting characters in his own movie. In his late teens, he’s a mumbly young aesthete, though articulate enough to be obnoxious in a manner similar to Hawke in Before Sunrise. Mason’s efforts at this age to explain his discontent with the world are perhaps the film’s most recognizably Linklater-y moments.
13. Even if Mason is an occasionally grating presence in these late-teens scenes, the character also makes possible a series of tense, sometimes illuminating conversations. (He needs foils, and Linklater provides them.) Boyhood examines how different types of people relate to a sensitive-but-rude, pretentious-but-well-meaning young guy, including a girlfriend who’s intrigued by Mason’s reserve but put off by his dourness and a restaurant manager who’s desperate to be a figure of encouragement.
14. Perhaps the most moving of these exchanges is a conversation Mason has with a teacher inside a high school dark room. Talking at Mason, bound inside a tucked-in polo shirt, the teacher stresses the need—even among artists—for focus and a strong work ethic; he also describes the ability of the ambitious to overtake the merely talented. This is information Mason doesn’t necessarily require and certainly doesn’t want to hear, delivered with conviction but not the power to persuade. And yet everything the man says is true. Boyhood is at its best when finding this sort of balance—presenting a character that’s at once a figure of fun and a figure of some dignity.
15. This openheartedness runs across Boyhood. Linklater works to examine the multiple layers within his characters, which is a real asset in an undertaking like this particular film. When he does poke at Mason’s emerging pretentions, he does so with a light touch and without abandoning his sympathies for Mason entirely. The film’s last scene is a great example of Linklater’s ability to find this balance, though I won’t spoil it here.
16. A director like Noah Baumbach has tackled similar themes (growth, pretention, the fraying of families) with a stronger directorial voice in films such as The Squid and the Whale, but when one imagines the suffocating qualities of Noah Baumbach’s Boyhood, Linklater’s live-and-let-live approach is more appealing still.
17. As mentioned earlier, Boyhood is most plainly a Richard Linklater film anytime its characters discuss art or life itself—when we encounter them grasping at big ideas. Another way of putting it: Boyhood is more a film of memorable exchanges than of memorable shots.
18. Linklater isn’t indifferent to camera placement. But watching Boyhood in the context of Linklater’s larger filmography, it’s no big surprise that Linklater was able to adapt his sensibility for more mainstream pictures like Bad News Bears. An irony here: watching Boyhood means considering the method by which the film was made, yet the camera rarely makes its presence felt.
19. …And basically, that works. Even if other filmmakers had conceived of similar projects, Linklater is the right filmmaker for the concept—anything more demonstrative would likely have been overwhelming.
20. (The thought of Terrence Malick’s Boyhood is even scarier than the thought of Noah Baumbach’s.)
21. Linklater is first and foremost a director of actors. His gift is in creating spaces where scenes can take place (as opposed to the composition of the scenes themselves).
22. The editing, meanwhile, asks viewers to participate in the story, at least by creating closure between its scenes. Viewers will find little difference, if any, between the kind of cutting that occurs within a particular time period and the cutting that occurs as the film transitions from one time period to the next. Most transitions are easy enough to discern—usually a new hairstyle or a few inches of new growth makes the change obvious. Still, a viewer’s footing depends quite a lot on his or her willingness to pay attention. Boyhood is not a difficult film, but it’s still a film that will lose some people—at least momentarily.
23. The usefulness of Boyhood’s period-appropriate soundtrack will vary depending on a viewer’s own memories of the songs. Most selections played for me as a way to mark the years during the film’s transitions—though no selection from Wilco or Cat Power or The Flaming Lips has quite the impact of a character’s diagetic rendition of “Oops!…I Did It Again.”
24. Boyhood makes reference to the US invasion of Iraq and the 2004 and 2008 elections, but Linklater doesn’t strain to capture the spirit of a particular year. The pop- and indie rock songs are helpful signposts, then, in an otherwise quite viscous story.
25. One Linklater’s boldest moves in Boyhood takes place at the very beginning. Coldplay’s “Yellow” accompanies the film’s first scenes, and although not everyone on the planet treats that band as shorthand for uncool—people come out by the thousands for their concerts, I know—some people certainly do. Maybe Linklater is challenging viewers to abandon their cynicism; maybe he’s telling viewers that the film will have elements of the familiar, regardless of its ambitions; maybe he just likes the guitar tone on “Yellow,” which, all right, has aged well. But one has to imagine that Richard Linklater knows how many people hate Coldplay. So, some boldness from the start.